Recognizing Triggers and Learning How to Manage Them

RAFT Team, April 8, 2019

Removing yourself from a violent relationship doesn't mean you're suddenly better.

The road to recovery is long, and along the way survivors often experience what experts call “triggers.” These triggers can cause anxiety, depression, sadness, and panic.

What are Triggers?

A trigger is anything that consciously or subconsciously reminds you of your past abuse. It’s almost like a sudden flashback, or a recording playing in a survivor's head. These traumatic triggers put a survivor right back in the middle of terror. Triggers are terrifying, and survivors are unable to control their emotional and physical responses in the midst of such fear.

Triggers can be internal or external. Internal triggers occur in our minds and promote the urge to relive a particular moment. External triggers are environmental factors that accost us suddenly and often without warning.

What Causes Triggers?

Triggers can be caused by a multitude of sounds, smells, sensations, and environments. As each abuse situation is different, so is a survivor's particular traumatic triggers. Below are a few more common triggers:

  • Seeing a fabric pattern, familiar shirt, or passing a familiar location
  • Hearing the sound of breaking glass, revving of a car engine, a balloon pop, or particular quality of voice
  • Smelling a particular cologne or food
  • Experiencing a particular holiday event or celebration
  • Feeling a hug, a friendly pat on the back, or a gentle hand on the arm

As you can see, triggers can come as the result of good things, not just scary things. In all these instances, a survivor may be physically safe, but mentally and emotionally returns to a moment of danger. It may take some time for survivors to identify their triggers. And it may take even longer for them to confide in those around them. The sooner these two things happen, the sooner a survivor and all supporters can learn to cope with these triggers in a healthy manner.

Coping with Triggers

Domestic violence survivors are strong individuals. Many go on to advocate for those still trapped in abusive situations. Even in the midst of helping others, these survivors are in the healing process themselves. Many find themselves working in domestic violence shelters. Whatever path they choose, chances are they're still dealing with triggers.

Sometimes we can avoid triggers. We can choose to refrain from driving by a particular location. We can remove items from our homes that remind us abusive situations. Here are a few tips to help cope with the traumatic triggers we can't control:

Learn to Recognize Your Triggers

When you can learn to identify your triggers, you’ll be able to start working towards a means to cope with them. In the process, don’t disparage yourself for them. They aren’t foolish, dumb, or inconsequential. If seeing your abuser at your children’s school events causes you to freeze inside, have friends save a seat for you. Tell them what’s going on so they can help you through it.

Catch Triggers Early

The more you know what your triggers are, the better chance you have of catching yourself early in your response to them. When you’re able to catch your response early, before your emotions snowball into a big scary manner, you can manage it more easily.

Don’t Run Away

The natural instinct when we’re experiencing a traumatic memory is to run. To get away from what’s causing the pain. When we do this in the middle of a traumatic trigger, we don’t learn to make it through. We don’t learn to overcome. When we choose to stand with ourselves in the middle of the panic, we can begin to assure ourselves that we can make it through. That we aren’t in danger like we were before. That we are built to be survivors.

Talk It Out

Find a trusted friend to talk through your triggers. When you talk about your thoughts and feelings, you can actually gain more mastery over them. Additionally, you can develop a mantra or two to help you with your particular triggers. That way, when you’re at the beginning of a traumatic trigger episode, you can talk yourself back down onto solid footing.

Find a Positive Sensory Experience

Finally, consider a comforting smell or texture that you can keep in your purse or pocket. One that makes you feel like you’re wrapped in safety. It may be an essential oil (smell), a smooth stone (touch), or a favorite song (sound). Any of these can serve as a grounding for you when you feel your panic start to rise.

However you choose to cope, be gentle with yourself. Seek support from trusted people around you.